Fandom-Avatar: the Last Airbender
Characters-Zuko, Jet (indirect, but still major), appearances by Sokka, Katara, Aang, and Toph (mostly indirect), mentions of Azula
Rating/Warnings-PG. MULTIPLE major characters die, and the central theme is death.
Summary-A tribute to a fallen comrade turns out to be a grounding for Zuko. //Post-war!fic, kind of AU. A lead in (from Zuko's POV) to a planned story arc for AtLA.//
Zuko knew things would change after he became Fire Lord.
It was in the throne’s very nature to change things; to change people, alter them beyond recognition. He had seen it in his mother (I have to leave, Zuko, but don’t forget my love), in his sister (she’s different somehow; she’s slipping), and it had even touched his uncle, who had once seemed beyond the reach of any mortal problems (it makes me so happy that my last sight will be my nephew being crowned). Even from an early age, he knew it.
(Though his father was a lost cause—he always had been, from the new Fire Lord’s earliest memories. He’d always liked to think that the man was once better, once human, although it was more of a dream than anything real and tangible.)
But he was different. Zuko vowed to everything that he would be different, and that this ultimate power would not change him completely. It took years, but the phrase power corrupts was ingrained in his brain like the chi in his body. The scarred man liked to think he had a better chance than all the other people—mainly because he had been forced to find himself during his banishment, rather than the choice being among many, as it had been for his family.
So when Aang and his band of friends started to talk about visiting the grave of a fallen comrade, he just had to listen in, just had to ask if he could come. It would be good, both politically and personally, to see the final resting spot of someone who had died in the war.
They hadn’t been so happy about it.
“I don’t know, Zuko…I don’t think you met him.”
“He wasn’t a big fan of Firebenders. They…kinda destroyed his life and family when he was little.”
“Yeah, Fire Boy. I don’t even know him that well, but I don’t think he’d like it much if the Fire Lord was at his grave.”
Only Katara didn’t speak against him coming. (Though she hadn’t spoken much of the fallen comrade anyways; the scarred man figured it was a personal issue.) In the end, though, Zuko did end up coming—he had to tug on the memory strings a bit, remind them all of the time leading up to Sozin’s Comet, but they eventually relented.
On the way to the grave, silence had fallen over the five. Zuko knew exactly how awkward this must be for them all (titles even changed them, he thought, and the knowledge stung), so he kept quiet until Appa descended through the gray, misty clouds and to the damp ground of a lonely hillside.
Unsurprisingly, the grave was simply marked. All that indicated that a person was even buried there was a wet plank of wood with the word ‘Freedom’ messily inscribed on it and a pair of oddly familiar hookswords laying in front of it. The threat of rain loomed over them, making the scene even more depressing.
“We’d better make this quick or we’re going to get drenched,” Sokka pointed out. “Those clouds are looking worse by the minute.”
So they all put their offerings by the plank of wood—a little fan from Aang, a dagger from Sokka, a burlap bag with rope inside from Toph, a vial of blessed water from Katara, and a few candles from Zuko—said a prayer, and stood awkwardly afterwards.
“Uh…I think someone should say something else.”
“Great idea, Aang. Have anything to say?” Sarcasm mixed with bitterness in Katara’s voice, and looking over Zuko could see tears prickling at the corner of her eyes.
(This is it—the big moment. Show them you haven’t changed.)
“I’ll say something.”
They all looked at the Fire Lord in shock (how are you supposed to say something when you don’t know the person? was probably running through their heads), but he didn’t see their faces. All that he saw was the wooden gravemarker, the offerings, and the familiar looking hookswords—though he didn’t even see that, really, because he was focusing on a tugging memory in the back of his mind.
“Well…this man died in the war. And I know that he had his life destroyed by Firebenders, so I can guess that they were with the Fire Nation…” He was struggling with the words, trying to speak from the spirit, the heart. Soon, though, he realized that he didn’t know the person; it was impossible to speak completely from the heart when you didn’t know who you were speaking to. So Zuko straightened up, inhaled deeply, and said the only thing that he could think of.
“On behalf of the Fire Nation, I apologize.”
The silence that hung among the five after the Fire Lord apologized was almost more awkward than the previous silences combined. Eventually, though, Aang murmured a ‘good job’, Sokka grunted in approval, Toph clapped him on the shoulder, and Katara simply stood looking at the grave. After a few more moments of standing, they all turned back to get on Appa and fly away. Before Zuko got on, though, he cast one last glance at the grave.
I wish I knew who you were…
Familiarity and half forgotten memories tugged at him the entire way back.
(It was all blurred faces and distorted voices, though, nothing recognizable. They faded away as the day wore on.)
Zuko, with his wife, had two children—one son and one daughter. He was proud of both, unlike his father.
(All three died in the new war between the nations, his son fighting for the Fire Nation, and his wife and daughter in a surprise attack on the palace.)
His friendships, though he tried to keep them strong, dissolved over time—everyone had their own thing to do, and with the busy lives they were all leading, it was hard to really get any personal time between them. Eventually, the four of them—Toph, Aang, Katara and Sokka—went on a world peace tour and then stuck to traveling around, like the nomads did.
(He found out that they had split up later on, mostly due to romantic issues between them all, and that Katara and Toph were dead, Sokka was a prisoner of the Earth Kingdom, and Aang had disappeared off the face of the earth.)
Issues in the Fire Nation had spurred several rebellions against Zuko, which he had put down successfully.
(Until the day that his own sister, who had escaped from prison seven years after he had taken the throne, barged into his throne room and forced him to run for his life.)
In the end, he ended up on the lonely hill with the barely marked grave, alone, cold, and nearly dead. The wood gravemarker had long since started to sink into the ground, and now the only part of "Freedom" that was visible through the moss and soil was "Free". The hookswords had grown rusty and brittle with years of exposure to the elements, and the offerings that had been made so long ago (probably the only offerings ever made, he thought to himself) were gone.
It was sitting in front of the grave on a cold winter night, trying to bring some of his internal heat up so he wouldn’t freeze to death, that Zuko finally remembered who the mystery man he mourned many years ago was. Despite his situation, it brought a smile to his face—their brief adventures together were interesting to remember, though the memory of Jet being dragged off by black robed men made him cringe.
The best thing about him finally remembering, though, was that it centered him. Again, he really remembered and knew who he was and how he had got there—years of struggling had made him who he was. The memories gave him hope.
(Zuko died alone with a faint smile on his lips and the blurry mental image of a smiling young man with a piece of grass hanging out of his mouth.)